After years of waiting, it’s time to witness WRC Safari Rally officially revs off

Thursday, June 24th, 2021 00:00 |
Spanish driver Dani Sordo navigated by Borja Rozada power their Hyundai i20 coupe at the Loldia stage during the WRC Safari Rally Shakedown yesterday. Photo/NELSON JEREMY

Edwin Otieno

The mythical Safari Rally, the most famous motor racing event in the world, returns to the FIA World Rally Championship today for the first time since 2002.

Pre-race favourite and multiple world champion, Frenchman Sebastian Ogier in his Toyota Yaris posted the fastest times at yesterday’s Shakedown in Loldia section where he clocked 3:42.6 over a distance of 5.15km.

Shakedown is a full-speed test before start where the drivers have an opportunity to feel the surface and the character of the stage. The competing drivers then have a chance to adjust the cars for maximum performance according to current situations.

Late entrant Oliver Solberg became the first casualty after hitting a rock in the stage, forcing a red flag.

Briton Elfy Evans also in a Toyota Yaris clocked the second best time of 3:42.7, while Belgian Thierry Neuville driving a Hyundai clocked the third best time at the pre-race warm up, 3:43.7.

Only nine local drivers took part in the Shakedown and Onkar Rai in a Volkswagen Polo R5 was the Kenyan driver with the best time after he clocked 4:07.6.

The 6,000km open-road blasts of yesteryear around East Africa have evolved to fit the modern WRC, but the Safari’s epic character remains with punishing dirt roads, picture-postcard scenery and exotic wildlife to the fore.

None of the WRC’s frontline drivers have experienced the Safari, which means adventure in the Swahili language and brings a unique challenge to the 12-round championship.

Long straight dusty roads where speeds could top 200kph contrast with rocky rutted tracks that reduce cars to little more than walking pace. And with Kenya still in its wet season, rain can transform dry trails into glutinous mudbaths in a matter of minutes.

The interested spectators watching the action around Naivasha, 100km north-west of Nairobi, will, of course, be headed by the wildlife. The area is home to lions, leopards, giraffes, zebras and hippos, all keeping a watch on the red-hot action from a distance.

Testing is banned outside Europe so championship leader Sébastien Ogier and Toyota Yaris team-mates Elfyn Evans and Kalle Rovanperä journeyed to Spain to try to simulate what lies ahead on the Great Rift Valley roads.

“I’m always excited to discover a new challenge in my career, and I believe this rally will be very different from anything I have done before,” enthused Ogier, who leads Evans by 11 points as the series reaches its midpoint.

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